Book 6 in the Mail Carrier Cozy Mystery Series
Sugar Creek Gap is a southern small town where everyone puts their differences aside in order to come together for the greater good of the cozy knit community. But when a citizen, Jeff Faulkner, goes missing from the annual Sugar Creek Gap High School fundraiser, the rumor mill starts to turn faster and faster, churning up the past that puts Jeff Faulkner in the spot light.
Bernadette Butler, a local mail carrier, hears all the gossip swirling around while delivering the mail on route. Hearsay says Jeff ran off because his payment for an old gambling debt came due or he ran off with another women making both assumptions irrelevant after Rowena, Bernadette’s feline, finds Jeff’s lifeless body.
Heartbroken for Jeff’s family, Bernie knows all too well what it feels like to become a widow and a son fatherless. Bernie can’t help but collect clues with all the gossip flowing faster than she can deliver the mail, putting her smack dab in the middle of the investigation that has more twists and turns than the roads where Bernie drives her mail carrier truck.
Book 6 in the Mail Carrier Cozy Mystery Series
“Would you like a brownie bite?” was all I had to ask the group of teenagers before they bombarded me, snatching up all the fresh baked goodies Iris Peabody had made for the end-of-the-year fundraiser for the Sugar Creek High School Booster Club.
With an empty tray, I headed across the ballroom at the Sugar Creek Country Club toward the kitchen to get a refill.
“Oops.” I lifted the tray in the air and twirled around when someone bumped into me. “I’m sorry. Luckily, empty tray.” I pulled the tray down and gripped the edges, thankful I didn’t have anything on it.
“Sorry, Bernie,” Rachel Faulkner, another mom in the booster club, apologized.
“It’s okay. No harm. Say—” I noticed she was looking around and not really paying attention to me. Her brows were knotted. “I heard Les got the engineering grant. That’s amazing.”
Her son, Les, was probably the smartest kid that’d ever come out of Sugar Creek High School. He had always dreamed of going to one of those fancy Ivy League colleges, and Rachel and Jeff, her husband, had always been so great about letting Newton go off to the various camps he wanted to attend. If I remembered correctly, his first camp was when he was six, and it was out West. It was some sort of chemistry camp. I remembered thinking there was no way Grady, my son, would’ve been able to remember to change his underwear daily, much less go twenty-something hours away to a camp and get up to attend any sort of classes.
“STEM. STEM grant,” she corrected me. “I’m sorry, Bernie. I’m looking for Jeff. Have you seen him?” She touched my forearm. I could feel it shaking.
“I haven’t. Are you okay?” I asked and repeated STEM in my head so I could remember to ask someone about it.
“No. I can’t find him. He’s not answering his cell phone, and his foursome came in hours ago.” As she spoke, I felt her worry. “I’ve asked everyone, and no one seems to have seen him. It’s not like him.”
“I’m sure he’s somewhere around here.” I wanted to make her feel better, and I felt like I was right. “When I make my rounds and see him, I’ll tell him to come find you.”
“Thanks, Bernie. If you see him, text me. I’m worried.” She shook her head and hurried off to the next person she recognized. When I passed them, I overheard her asking them the same question she’d asked me.
“Have you seen Jeff? I can’t find him anywhere.” Her voice trailed off as I continued to head to the kitchen to get a refill of the baked goodies since I was on teenager duty.
“I think if we don’t make the money, Jeff and Rachel Faulkner will go nuts.” I kept my head down but walked a smidgen slower after I heard some gossip.
Another woman said, “I know. She wanted to do the casino night again.”
“That would’ve been the fifteenth year they’ve done it,” I heard another woman say. I almost looked up to see who it was, but since I had been the president of the Booster Club at the time they were referencing and was the one who started casino night, I didn’t.
“Yeah. We needed a refresher, and if this golf outing doesn’t do well, it’s back to casino night next year.” A long sigh came out of the first woman I’d heard talking.
I rolled my eyes and headed into the swinging door that led to the country club’s kitchen, where I found my best friend and amazing baker, Iris Peabody, and the head chef of the country club, Audrey Rogers, plating all the trays they could as fast as they could.
“Have you seen Jeff Faulkner?” I asked a couple of the other moms who had volunteered to carry trays to the guests of the fundraiser. They shook their heads. “If you do, please tell him his wife is looking for him.”
“What was the big eye roll about when you walked in?” Iris placed tiny little paper cupcake holders on my tray. Each one was filled the perfect bite-sized vanilla cupcake with a nice thick topping of buttercream icing and a sliced strawberry on top for decoration.
“I overheard some of the women out there talking about how this fundraiser had to make more money than the casino night. Because they don’t want to go back to casino night next year.” I did my best impression of them with a whiny voice to match the feeling they gave me.
“I’ve been hearing a lot of that lately. I guess they didn’t like casino night.” Audrey put the finishing touches of the charcuterie board before one of the waitstaff of the country club carefully picked up the massive piece of wood and slowly propped it up on one of his shoulders. He gingerly took a few steps to get his footing and then walked out of the kitchen.
Iris headed over to the refrigerator and walked in.
“Casino night was great.” I put my hands on my thick hips and gave a pouty lip. “I should know. That was when Grady was still in high school, and I was the booster mom.”
My son, Grady, was now a grown man with a family of his own. Recently he and his wife Julia had blessed me with my first grandchild, Clara. The thought of her made my heart swoon with delight.
“I remember how much you stressed over it.” Iris emerged from the walk-in refrigerator with a cookie sheet filled with mini cheesecakes and set them on top of the workstation. “The first hour was a bit touchy.” She looked at Audrey then picked up the can of whipped cream and shook it. “Bernie was counting the money every, what? Ten seconds?” she questioned me.
“Maybe, but after a few drinks in those dads, we were rolling in the donations.” I nodded with a big grin across my face.
“That’s why casino night works. They were at the table betting and not driving around in a golf cart drinking all day.” Iris made little volcano on top of one of the cheesecakes and put a raspberry in the middle for the decoration before she plated it on the tray for another volunteer to take out for the hungry golfers and their families before the big meal was served.
“Yeah. Then they come in here and eat all the food, which soaks up the alcohol.” Audrey had moved over to the oven, where she was checking on the personal-sized hens she was serving.
“Yep. That’s when they’ll realize they don’t want to write a check because they are thinking a little clearer.” I pushed the swinging door open a little and peeked out to see if Grady and Julia had gotten there yet.
I didn’t see them, but I did see Rachel Faulkner. She seemed to be in a panic as she rushed around to the various groups and hurried away as soon as their heads shook no.
“Your idea of having the casino dealer asking after each hand if they wanted to donate their chips to the booster club was brilliant, because they were so busy drinking and gambling, they didn’t realize their chips were adding up over the hands, and they just kept buying more chips when they were out.” Iris walked up behind me and also took a peek out. “Wonder where Jeff is?”
I turned around when I recognized the tone in her voice.
For a brief moment, our eyes caught. I could see there a deep concern on her face, but I didn’t dare ask. I didn’t want to know.
“Here.” She shoved the new tray of brownies in my hand. “Go give these to the kids.”
“Your time with me is limited,” I reminded her.
“I know, I know. Clara comes first,” Iris teased, shoving me out the door.
She was right. Baby Clara came first, now that she was here. I had altered my entire life around Grady and his needs after he was born. Richard had a good job, and I was able to quit my mail carrier job and be a stay-at-home mom. It was a wonderful time for me and Grady. Grady had been in high school when Richard was killed in a car wreck and I had to go back to working at the post office. Even though Grady was a teenager and could pretty much take care of himself, I still spent every waking moment outside of work to be there, and that included all the school events as well as being the booster president.
Even when Grady went off to college, I stayed involved in the school system. Sugar Creek Gap was a small mill town in the foothills of the mountains in Kentucky, so there weren’t a lot of parents who had time to volunteer, or they’d leave once their children were out of school. Since I knew a lot of people in the community, it was easy for me to stay involved.
I was glad I had, because Grady had come back after college to take a teaching position at the high school and the head football coaching position. He married Julia, who I couldn’t love any more than I did, then recently had Clara, who I did love more than anything in this world.
So when they asked me if I could watch Clara during the big fundraiser, it was a no-brainer. I was able to help out Iris for the first hour and then take little Clara home with me for the night while Julia and Grady had a night out.
“What’s on your tray?” my mom asked when I walked up to her and Dad, who were standing with a few women from the community.
“Not a thing. Those kids cleaned me out.” I stuck the tray up under my arm. “Are y’all having a good time?”
I looked around at the ladies I knew very well. There was Doctor Jeanine Olson, the local veterinarian, and Matilda Green, who owned the Roasted Bean, a local coffee shop. Sara Rammond, who owned the Leaf and Petal, a garden center, and my parents, who were the owners of Wallflower Diner, the restaurant on Main Street, rounded out the group.
“We are. I hope someone nice wins my silent auction item.” Sara Rammond was generous enough to offer a free day’s worth of landscaping.
“That was very kind to offer your time.” Matilda nodded. “I donated a basket of coffee goodies.”
“It seems like everything is getting some nice bids.” Dr. Olson held a drink in her hand. “I’m just not sure it’ll bring in more money than previous years.”
“Where is Grady? I want to see my Clara.” My dad beamed when he talked about her, no different than the rest of us. She was a light in all of our hearts that never dulled.
“I don’t know.” I pulled my wrist up to look at my watch. “They said they’d be here right after her supper, so it has to be any minute now.” I looked around to see any sign of them. Nothing. “Oh well, I better get back to the kitchen so Iris gets to use me before I hold Clara all night long.”
“You better not hold her all night. You’re going to ruin her for Julia, and she won’t let you babysit no more.” My mom gave me a warning that went in one ear and out the other before I headed back in the direction of the kitchen.
“Any luck?” I ran into Rachel Faulkner again.
“No, and I’m starting to get really worried.” She blinked a few times before Ranger Slater took the stage.
“Good evening, and welcome to the Sugar Creek Gap Country Club. On behalf of the staff and members, we hope you have had a great day on the links and continue to have a wonderful evening for a great cause.” Ranger gestured over to the silent auction. “We hope you continue to bid on all the wonderful items that have been generously donated by members of our community. I believe I’m the winning bid for a free oil change donated by Colvin Batty from the gas station. I believe my wife, Peggy, is winning the gorgeous blanket made by Leotta Goldey from Social Knitworks.”
I was glad to see Ranger making an effort to get people to bid higher. It was the only way to generate some donations inside of the country club. From what I had understood during one of the booster meetings, the real money was donated from the various people who had sponsored each golf hole, and a portion of the fee to enter the golf tournament also went to the boosters. Though I had no idea. I was not a golfer.
“Hey there, beautiful.” Without turning around, I knew the sweet sound in my ear was Mac Tabor, my devilishly handsome and amazing boyfriend. “You come here often?”
“Stop it.” I twisted around and smiled. “How was the golf course?”
“Meh,” he grumbled. “You and I both know I’m not a golfer. I wish they would’ve just let me donate instead of pretending to even know how to hit that tiny white ball. What do you say we blow this joint?”
“You know I’m waiting on Clara.”
“And that’s why Grady and Julia are waiting outside in the parking lot for you, and why I came in.” He pulled something out of his back pocket and held it up between his fingers. “And to drop off my donation check.”
“You’re the best.” I gave him a quick kiss on the lips. “You go put that in the donation box while I say goodbye to Iris and grab my purse.”
“I’ll be waiting in the parking lot.”
Mac Tabor had been in my and Grady’s lives forever. It seemed like forever. He came with Richard. Not in our marriage. He was Richard’s best friend, and he was alongside of us throughout our marriage and really there for me after Richard died. Some not-so-flattering things about Richard and a secret life he’d had the entire time of our marriage had practically brought me to my knees and broken me. Luckily, Grady and I had Mac there to help pick up the pieces and make sense of what had happened.
“I don’t know. He walked off the course mad,” I overheard a man telling Rachel. “He and Bruce Kline got into an argument. From what I could see, they had a few words, then Jeff walked off. But not before he threw his golf club.”
Rachel’s face went pale.